Bush Administration Challenges Oregon's Assisted-Suicide Law

Before resigning from his post as attorney general, John Ashcroft asked the U.S. Supreme Court to set aside Oregon’s assisted suicide law, the only one of its kind in the nation.

Ashcroft is appealing two lower court rulings made by a federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Oregon’s assisted-suicide law or Death with Dignity Act allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of legal substances to be used by a terminally ill patient to commit suicide.

In 2001, Ashcroft had issued a directive seeking to revoke licenses from doctors who prescribed drugs to aide in a suicide, pointing to the federal Controlled Substances Act, which only allows the dispense of drugs for legitimate medical purpose.

The Bush Administration is backing the appeal, saying "assisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose,” and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.

In the appeal, Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement said, “The attorney general's reasonable interpretation of the comprehensive federal statute must prevail over the determination by a particular state that departs radically from long-accepted legal and ethical norms.”

He said the appeals court ruling "improperly allows states to dictate the content of federal law,” reported Reuters.

The Supreme Court will announce early next year whether it decides to hear the case.

If the case reaches the nation’s high court, it will not be the first time Justices dealt with an assisted-suicide-related case. In 1997, the justices ruled that while Americans have no constitutional right to assisted suicide, states may decide the issue for themselves. And in 1990, the court ruled that terminally ill people can refuse life-sustaining medical treatment.

Under the assisted suicide law, two doctors must confirm that a patient, who is mentally competent, has less than six months to live before a doctor can prescribe the assisted-suicide drugs. The drugs are self-administered by the patient.

Since the law was enacted in 1998, there have been 170 people who have used the assisted-suicide law.

"Killing patients is not medical care," said James Bopp, a Right-to-Life lawyer based in Terre Haute, Ind., in a Associated Press report. "What you have in Oregon is the equivalent of putting a gun to a patient's head and pulling the trigger. They just use drugs to do it."